Tag Archives: Advocacy

Historic Preservation and Social Justice

Two years ago I launched All That Philly Jazz, a public history project that is telling the story of Philadelphia’s rich jazz legacy. In documenting the places where jazz history unfolded, I also want to contextualize the impact of jazz musicians and the jazz culture.

Fact is, the jazz culture was about “intersectionality” before the term was coined . As Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron notes in her column, “Ridge Avenue’s last standing jazz club,” gay performers such as the “Sepia Gloria Swanson” were an integral part of the scene.

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In a piece for PlanPhilly, I wrote about why historic preservation matters:

1409 Lombard Street helps tell the story of artistic greats like Lady Day, Ray Charles, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Nina Simone and McCoy Tyner. It also tells the story of disruption and defiance. In remarks to the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said jazz is “triumphant music.” If walls could talk, they would tell how the jazz culture broke down social barriers. The first racially integrated nightspot in Center City was a jazz club, the Downbeat. For the first time, blacks and whites mixed on an equal basis. Jazz musicians created a cultural identity that was “a steppingstone” to the Civil Rights Movement.

At its core, historic preservation is about storytelling. The question then becomes: Who decides what gets saved and whose story gets told? The built environment reflects racial inequalities. Given African Americans’ socioeconomic status, few of the buildings associated with black history meet preservation standards regarding architectural significance. Although unadorned, they are places that tell a more complete American story. The stories of faith, resistance, and triumph are relevant to today’s social justice activists.

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St. Peter Claver, Gentrification and Black History

First it was #PopeInPhilly. Now this: The Archdiocese of Philadelphia plans to put the oldest church for black Catholics on the auction block. St. Peter Claver Union was named after the “Apostle of the Slave Trade,” a 16th century Spanish Jesuit priest who fought against the slave trade.

St. Peter Claver Church Historical Marker

St. Peter Claver was an anchor in the community. Future blues legend Ethel Waters recounts in her autobiography, His Eye is on the Sparrow, that at age six, she was gravely ill with typhoid fever and double pneumonia. Her grandmother sent for Fr. Healey who baptized and anointed her.

In 1942, St. Peter Claver’s Catholic Church, Fifty Golden Years, a self-published history, was released:

It was also toward the end of the 19th century that a sizable population of blacks developed their own Catholic congregation in Philadelphia. Prior to 1886, black Catholics had worshiped in the parishes of St. Joseph, St. Mary, and St. Augustine in the city. In 1886, Holy Trinity Church, a traditionally German Catholic Church at 6th and Spruce, began holding a mass for blacks. The pastor of Holy Trinity, Father Hilterman, encouraged his black congregants to form their own union, which adopted the name St. Peter Claver Union, after the native of Catalonia, Spain, whose efforts in behalf of emancipation earned him the title, “Apostle of the Slave Trade.”

In July 29, 1889, Rev. Patrick McDermott, arrived in Philadelphia to take charge of the burgeoning black Catholic congregation at the request of Mother Katherine Drexel, founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, after she visited Holy Ghost College (now Duquesne University) in Pittsburgh, PA. McDermott’s congregation began assembling in a small chapel in the second story of a home at 832 Pine Street in 1889, but it soon became too crowded, and the group began to look for a large church home.

When in 1890, the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia offered its building at 12th and Lombard for sale, the congregation began to pool its resources to purchase it. When Patrick Quinn, treasurer of the Beneficial Savings Fund Society, one of Philadelphia’s largest banks at the time, died the same year, his will stipulated that $5,000 of his fortune was to go to the “proposed Colored Catholic Church of Philadelphia.” With donations from other well-to-do Philadelphians and loan from a bank, the congregation managed to assemble the funds to purchase Fourth Presbyterian Church at 12th and Lombard, which was dedicated as St. Peter Claver’s Church, Philadelphia’s first black Catholic church, on January 3, 1892.

Fast forward to today. The Archdiocese is in Orphans’ Court petitioning for the removal of racial language in the deeds that would rewrite history.

Arlene Edmonds, community historian and author of the African American Catholic Youth Bible, told Sabrina Vourvoulias of Philadelphia Magazine:

I feel a special connection because I’ve always been interested in historical sites, particularly the Underground Railroad and the sites that were built from by those enslaved Africans who creatively masterminded their escapes. Setting foot in St. Peter Claver one can feel it is part of that lineage. As a Catholic, so many of the earliest African connections to the faith have been overpowered by Western traditions after the faith was embraced by Europeans. Most American Catholic churches are centered around a Eurocentric interpretation of the faith.

Then you have a St. Peter Claver Church that was donated to the Black community for the purpose of evangelizing to African Americans. They lived in Philadelphia during the antebellum era, were among those who escaped along the Underground Railroad, or who migrated here later from the south as well as the Caribbean and Latin America. This was their church before there was an Archdiocese of Philadelphia [emphasis added]. It housed their history in photographs and artifacts. To have that taken from us is very sad. That is why many feel as I do, that others are trying to erase our history even those who say they share our faith.

I don’t share Edmonds’ faith, but I share her concern that gentrification is erasing African American history. Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church, is host of “Urban Insight” on 900amWURD. In an interview with Edmonds, Rev. Tyler observed:

St. Peter Claver is sandwiched between Big Wesley and Mother Bethel. The neighborhood is awash with great history of founding events in the black community. It’s an American story. We must help the Archdiocese find a different way to deal with this property.

Given the givens, I put my faith in Orphans’ Court. So I filed an objection to the Archdiocese’s Petition for Cy Pres.

Malcolm X and Historic Preservation

Before his awakening, Malcolm X was known as “Detroit Red,” a fixture on the jazz scene in Harlem. In 1948 while incarcerated in the Norfolk State Colony in Massachusetts, Malcolm joined the Nation of Islam. In 1954, Elijah Muhammad sent him to Philadelphia to expand Temple No. 12.

Until recently, there was confusion about where Malcolm X resided during his time in Philadelphia. Eyewitness and videotaped firsthand accounts have confirmed his address in Sharswood. So All That Philly Jazz is sponsoring the nomination of 2503 W. Oxford Street for listing in the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

In a Q&A with Hidden City Philadelphia’s Mike Bixler, All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson talks about Malcolm X, jazz and historic preservation:

Michael Bixler: The FBI files from 1954 have Malcolm X at living at 1522 N. 26th Street, but you have discovered otherwise. How did you confirm that 2503 Oxford Street was his correct address?

Faye Anderson: On January 16, the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus held a screening of civil rights documentaries at the Pearl Theater. One of the films screened was “Seeds of Awakening: The Early Nation of Islam in Philadelphia,” which included first-hand accounts of Malcolm X’s time in the city. In the film Brother Richard Hassan recalled:

We would sit up all night. When Malcolm was here, we’d sit up all night talking. We had a Unity House, a Fruit House, on 2503 Oxford Street. A big house. That’s where Malcolm would stay and all the brothers would come.

The documentary was produced by the New Africa Center, part of the Scribe Video Center’s Muslim Voices of Philadelphia community history project. I have since spoken with Abdul Rahim Muhammad, executive director of the New Africa Center, who confirmed the address with Brother Hassan. While Hassan no longer lives in the Philadelphia area, I have his phone number so I will be able to get an affidavit from him if necessary. I also have contact information for Malcolm’s former press secretary and photographer.

MB: What are the next steps to getting an historical marker placed?

FA: Architectural historian Oscar Beisert and I are preparing the form to nominate 2503 W. Oxford Street for historic designation by the Philadelphia Historical Commission and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. We will submit the nomination on or about February 21, 2016, the 51st anniversary of the assassination of El-Hajj Malik Shabazz [Malcolm X].

MB: Why is it important to you to have an historical marker placed there?

FA: The historical marker is important because 2503 W. Oxford Street is a place where history happened. Malcolm X lived there for about six months in 1954. To be clear, the house does not meet architectural standards for historic properties. Instead, the building has significance in the cultural characteristics of Philadelphia and is associated with a person significant in the past. The building also exemplifies the political, social and cultural heritage of the African American community. What happened at 2503 W. Oxford Street laid the foundation for what is now one of the largest populations of African-American Muslims in the country.

The historical marker will tell a more complete story about the Sharswood neighborhood. Sharswood is about more than concentrated poverty and race riots. It’s a community that provided safe havens from the indignities of segregation. Jazz giants roamed Ridge Avenue and iconic leaders like Malcolm X and Charles W. Bowser resided there.

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Ridge on the Rise

Back in the day, Ridge Avenue was a vibrant commercial corridor. The heart and soul of North Philadelphia was also an entertainment district. The Blue Note was at Ridge and 15th Street.

Blue Note

The Bird Cage Lounge was one block up at Ridge and 16th Street. I don’t know whether it was named after him, but Charlie “Bird” Parker played there. The legendary Pearl Bailey began her singing and dancing career at the Pearl Theater, which was at Ridge and 21st Street.

Pearl Theater Collage

Some of the jazz giants who roamed Ridge likely stayed at the LaSalle Hotel, which was close to the Pearl Theater. The hotel was listed in the The Negro Motorist Green Book. The Point jazz spot at Ridge and Columbia Avenue (now Cecil B. Moore Avenue) was at the western tip of the storied “Golden Strip.”

Ridge began its steep decline in the aftermath of the 1964 Columbia Avenue race riots and construction of the Norman Blumberg Apartments public housing. Fast forward 50 years, Ridge is on the rise.

In 2014, the Philadelphia Housing Authority announced that transformation of the Blumberg/Sharswood neighborhood was its top priority. The Sharswood Blumberg Choice Neighborhoods Transformation Plan is a massive $500 million project that would, among other things, revitalize the Ridge Avenue corridor.

In an op-ed piece published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, PHA President and CEO Kelvin A. Jeremiah wrote:

The redevelopment of a community is about turning ideas into public policy and putting policy into action.

PHA’s revitalization efforts are a targeted, coordinated development model designed to maximize the economic benefits of neighborhood revitalization, not the piecemeal dispersed development model of the past. To transform communities into neighborhoods of choice, there must be good schools for every child, quality affordable housing for all families, and a vibrant small business commercial corridor. The challenge is turning the ideas and rhetoric into policy and practice.

In remarks before the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s recent conference, Marion Mollegen McFadden, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Grant Programs, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, noted a community has both tangible and intangible assets:

I see preservation’s efforts to recognize and honor the cultural heritage of minority and ethnic groups as a valuable component of strong communities, in particular many of the communities that HUD serves. And I don’t just mean preservation of buildings and places, but also of diverse cultural ties and traditions, the intangible dimensions of heritage that together enrich us as a nation.

McFadden concluded with a quote from HUD Secretary Julián Castro:

History isn’t just a subject for books and documentaries. It’s alive and well in buildings, sites, and structures that shape our communities. They tell us who we are and where we come from – and it’s critical that we protect our past for present and future generations.

The Sharswood/Blumberg Choice Neighborhoods Transformation Plan raises the question: Does PHA value the area’s tangible and intangible assets that give the neighborhood its identity? If so, will a transformed Ridge Avenue preserve the neighborhood’s cultural heritage for present and future generations?